I love character studies! And that’s what AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul totally is: a character study of that lovable con-man Saul Goodman. Good writing is the heart of good television, and Writer’s Digest associate editor Cris Freese has compiled some writing takeaways from the hit show.
5 Things Better Call Saul Can Teach Us About Writing
by Cris Freese
I think the general consensus among those writers who teach the craft is that you must read—and read widely—about the craft of writing. They’ll also tell you to study fellow authors who write in your genre. And that’s solid advice. But I think there’s a lot you can learn about writing from other mediums, too. Specifically television. And since we’re in the golden age of television, there has never been a better time to analyze all the excellent writing that takes place in shows today—as well as some from yesteryear.
Every other Monday, I’ll be bringing you takeaways from some of the best television shows out there. These are meant to be specific concepts, themes, techniques, etc., that a writer can learn from the show. I’ll take a look at new shows, old shows, shows that are still airing, and others that have every season streaming online.
Let’s start with AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off: Better Call Saul.
For those of you who don’t know, Better Call Saul follows Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer who works cases as a public defender for guilty clients. His office is located in the back of a nail salon and doubles as his home. Jimmy also cares for his brother Chuck, a high profile lawyer who has taken a leave of absence from his firm due to the onset of electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Over the course of the series we’ll see how Jimmy will develop into the sleazy Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad. (Potential spoilers follow.)
1. Quirky Characters Have Quirky Backgrounds
No one expected the first season of Better Call Saul to begin with the wheeling-and-dealing, shady Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad. And though the black-and-white opening began with a nervous Goodman fearing he’d been recognized at a Cinnabon in Ohama, it was clear that this is the aftermath and not the main story. The lawyer with the cheesy commercials, one-liners and shiny white Cadillac had to have a background. That background is the basis for Better Call Saul, essentially making it a character study of sorts. And Goodman’s background is as quirky (or more so) as his shtick.
If you’re creating a hardened, cynical cop or detective, there needs to be a background that reflects his current state. Something made him develop a cynical world view. Goodman works well as an off-white, sketchy lawyer because he grew up as a con artist. Viewers quickly find out that Saul Goodman (a name created from the slurred line, “It’s all good man”) is actually Jimmy McGill, who used to be known as “Slippin’ Jimmy” for feigning falls in front of businesses and operating other petty scams. This character is believable as sleazy because that’s a part of who he is. He’ll go so far as to stage a filmed publicity stunt as his billboard is taken down, allowing him the “opportunity” to save a man’s life. However your character appears, commit to that in his background. And spend time actually writing and developing that background—even if it’s something that never makes it into your story.
2. Characters Should Have a Moment of Growth
One of the primary story lines of the first season involves the Kettlemans. Craig Kettleman, the father, has been accused of embezzling $1.6 million dollars as the former county treasurer. Jimmy wants to take on the family’s case, but it ultimately goes to his hated rival, Howard Hamlin of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill (with whom Jimmy’s brother is employed, but currently on leave). Jimmy’s friend Kim is assigned the case and ultimately fails to get the Kettlemans to take a plea deal, leading to her demotion. Knowing the Kettlemans have the embezzled funds, Jimmy has his associate steal the money. And while Slippin’ Jimmy may have split the cash with his partner, Jimmy decides to turn the money over to the police and tell the Kettlemans that their money is gone. He gets Craig to accept the plea deal, resurrecting Kim’s career even as it sets back his own (the Kettlemans had turned to Jimmy, believing he could get Craig off the hook).
Characters are most interesting when there’s a moment of conflict that ultimately leads to growth. Jimmy showed that he cared about someone other than himself, which is more than a little surprising. Previously, it seemed like he was only concerned with his own career. Going against his character and nature gives us a reason to root for Jimmy. When you’re writing characters, make sure you show true development over the course of the story. Whether that development ultimately leads to anything is up to you—she can always slip back into old habits. But a character shouldn’t remain static, or you’ll lose your audience.